Sara Nelson: Democratic Socialists and Labor Share the Same Goal

Sara Nelson May 24, 2019

Sara Nelson, the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants, speaks during a press conference on aviation safety during the shutdown. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

This arti­cle was first post­ed by Jacobin.

Sara Nel­son in her own words on build­ing a fight­ing labor move­ment, the proud his­to­ry of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism in Amer­i­ca, how work­ers end­ed the shut­down, and how they’ll stop Trump, too.

On May 10, 2019, Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants pres­i­dent Sara Nel­son gave a speech to the Chica­go Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of America’s annu­al Eugene Debs – Lucy Gon­za­lez Par­sons – A. Philip Ran­dolph Din­ner. We repro­duce the speech here in full, light­ly edit­ed for online publication.

Good evening, sis­ters and broth­ers. I’m here because aviation’s first respon­ders did me the great hon­or of elect­ing me to lead our union. I’m here rep­re­sent­ing them and stand in awe of their courage and care for all of us.

Our union, the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants – CWA, with fifty thou­sand mem­bers at twen­ty air­lines, first formed to beat back dis­crim­i­na­tion that ranged from quit­ting at age thir­ty, or step­ping on a weight scale until 1993. We fought for men to have the same rights as women on the job, and we were at the fore­front of LGBTQ rights.

That spir­it is what led flight atten­dants to declare we wouldn’t work flights that facil­i­tat­ed the Trump Administration’s evil pol­i­cy of immi­grant fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tions. And it’s that spir­it that led us to take a firm stand dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down, when mil­lions of peo­ple were out of work, oth­ers were forced to work with­out pay, all of us were increas­ing­ly unsafe, and our entire econ­o­my was on the line. With access to 360 mil­lion vot­ers in our work­place, we intend to con­tin­ue to use the spir­it of our union for good.

And let me tell you I’m proud to be with you, the Chica­go Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca. You have won some great vic­to­ries here in this city this year. You have helped elect some incred­i­ble lead­ers.

Still, some igno­rant polit­i­cal hack or media pur­vey­or of hate is like­ly talk­ing trash right now about demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists. And here’s what I have to say. Helen Keller was a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist. And so was Albert Ein­stein. And so was George Orwell. And Bayard Rustin. And the Reuther family.

When Nazi troops came to the War­saw Ghet­to to kill the last Jews left, the men and women on the rooftops who met them with gaso­line bombs were demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists, and demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists stood up against dic­ta­tor­ship through­out the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, they filled Stalin’s camps and Siber­ian graves.

The min­i­mum wage, nation­al health care, work­er safe­ty rules, Social Secu­ri­ty — before the Great Soci­ety and before the New Deal, this was the demo­c­ra­t­ic-social­ist agenda.

And of course our demo­c­ra­t­ic-social­ist work­ing heroes, Eugene Vic­tor Debs, A. Philip Ran­dolph, and Lucy Gon­za­lez Par­sons. The police called Lucy Par­sons more dan­ger­ous than a thou­sand riot­ers” because of her skills as an ora­tor, orga­niz­er, and rabble-rouser.

Her cry that only direct action — or the threat of it — will move the boss is a les­son we can all do well to remember.

Espe­cial­ly today, in this moment of cri­sis. Just one in ten work­ers in this coun­try is a par­ty to that char­ter of free­dom and badge of dig­ni­ty called a union con­tract. Our repub­lic is mocked every day by the pres­i­dent who swore to defend it and by those who made him in the Repub­li­can Party.

Around the world, the dark forces of hate dri­ven dic­ta­tor­ship are on the march, much as they were in the 1930s. Those who seek pow­er through hatred feed on and inspire vio­lence and mad­ness, and leave behind ran­dom vic­tims slaugh­tered in prayer — Chris­t­ian, Jew­ish, and Muslim.

And yet we are gath­ered at a time of tremen­dous hope and pos­si­bil­i­ty. And so I come here not to make you angry or tell you ter­ri­ble things, but to bring you good news from America’s work­ing peo­ple, and to speak to you in the lan­guage that Debs, Par­sons, and Ran­dolph spoke: the lan­guage of sol­i­dar­i­ty, of hope.

Amer­i­can Work­ers on the Offense

I want to sum­mon in your mind’s eye the faces of all the peo­ple who walked a pick­et line this past year. Pic­ture them: West Virginia’s teach­ers, and their minework­er par­ents and grand­par­ents. Gro­cery work­ers in Boston, hotel work­ers here in Chica­go, Google engi­neers in San Fran­cis­co, and Uber dri­vers in Los Angeles.

More work­ing peo­ple in this coun­try went on strike this past year than have done so in decades. These strikes were work­ers going on offense — work­ers demand­ing to be heard, work­ers strik­ing for a bet­ter day. For one job to be enough.

These were the kind of strikes that Debs, Par­sons, and Ran­dolph would have under­stood, because they were vision­ary, because they built pow­er, because they built right there on the pick­et line the kind of coun­try we want to be; where we care for each oth­er, where we fight hand in hand for our democ­ra­cy, where our many­ness” — our many nation­al­i­ties and races and reli­gions and our diver­si­ty of gen­der and gen­der iden­ti­ty — is a source of pride and strength and love.

And because we won.

We beat the Wall Street greed­heads and their polit­i­cal pawns who want­ed to destroy Los Angeles’s schools in the ser­vice of their profits.

We beat the tech­no barons of Google who thought they could reward sex­u­al harassers with giant pay pack­ages. (As hotel work­ers said in Chica­go: hands off, pants on.”)

We beat the giant multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions who own our nation’s hotels and gro­cery stores — who make bil­lions in prof­its but would have our kids go hungry.

Work­ers Beat Trump

And we beat the White House.

Don­ald Trump thought he could close our gov­ern­ment, stop pay­ing our nation’s pub­lic ser­vants, hold our well­be­ing as a nation hostage to his racist hatreds. And he thought he could bul­ly everyone.

But that’s not how it went down.

Because the peo­ple who run America’s avi­a­tion sys­tem take our respon­si­bil­i­ty to the pub­lic seri­ous­ly. So we start­ed talk­ing about a gen­er­al strike because it seemed to be the only way to stop Trump’s hench­men from in the end get­ting peo­ple killed in America’s skies — killed because once the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment start­ed treat­ing air traf­fic con­trollers and trans­porta­tion secu­ri­ty work­ers like slaves, mak­ing them work with­out pay and under the threat of indict­ment if they took action against it — more and more peo­ple sim­ply couldn’t afford to come to work.

It was a race against time. But in the end we won that race when the Fed­er­al Avi­a­tion Admin­is­tra­tion closed La Guardia Air­port to air traf­fic because there weren’t enough air traf­fic controllers.

The punch line here is that this year America’s work­ers have learned — we have taught our­selves — that we are as brave and strong and cre­ative as our fore­bears, that we can hold our heads high with Mem­phis san­i­ta­tion strik­ers, Flint sit-down strik­ers, the mar­tyred dead of Pull­man and Hay­mar­ket and Crip­ple Creek, Col­orado, with the mill girls of Low­ell, and the rebel slaves of Charleston — that if Eugene Debs came back today and went to an LA class­room or a Chica­go hotel or a flight atten­dant union meet­ing, he would know where he was.

It was the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, under the dynam­ic lead­er­ship of Karen Lewis and the teach­ers who orga­nized at the grass­roots as part of the Cau­cus of Rank-and-file Edu­ca­tors (CORE), who showed many of us how it’s done. With their incred­i­ble strike in 2012, they won not only a great con­tract — they rekin­dled the mil­i­tant, rank-and-file orga­niz­ing approach that built the ear­ly labor move­ment over a cen­tu­ry earlier.

But one strike does not a labor move­ment make. Nor does five or ten strikes. Our great task today — your task and my task, is to build a labor move­ment for this new cen­tu­ry — a labor move­ment for all of America’s work­ers — a labor move­ment as big and bold as Amer­i­ca itself, a labor move­ment that is as the poet once said of this city, singing so proud to be alive, brag­ging and laugh­ing that under our wrists are the pulse and under our ribs the heart of the people.”

Peo­ple Are Ready to Fight

Dur­ing our con­tract cam­paign at Unit­ed, we ran pick­et lines for twen­ty-four hours at air­ports around the world. Thou­sands of flight atten­dants showed up on only a few days’ notice. One flight atten­dant report­ed that she heard a woman stop to watch the pick­et­ing with her two teenage sons. She told them, See, this is what peo­ple do when they believe in some­thing. They fight for it.”

Peo­ple are ready to fight. Peo­ple are wait­ing for answers and we have those answers for them. We need to open our arms to all work­ing peo­ple and help them join us in build­ing pow­er — for all of us.

And so I want to talk to you about what you must do — par­tic­u­lar­ly young peo­ple. Because the labor move­ment we must build will be built by young peo­ple, or it won’t be built at all.

The truth is the orga­niz­ers of the great moments of growth in Amer­i­can labor have always been young. The Reuther broth­ers were in their late twen­ties when they began to orga­nize the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers. The founders of the oth­er unions of the CIO were often even younger than that.

And there is a rea­son why young peo­ple lead when the labor move­ment grows. To grow we have to build unions that reflect the expe­ri­ence and needs of the new work­force, and to chal­lenge the entrenched pow­er of employ­ers. That was true in the 1890s when Debs found­ed the Amer­i­can Rail­way Union, it was true in the 1930s and in the 1970s when teach­ers and san­i­ta­tion work­ers went on strike for the right to orga­nize and bar­gain, and it is true today.

The labor move­ment needs you to help build it.

Part of that task is to build a labor move­ment that speaks for and to today’s work­force — work­ing in jobs that are inte­grat­ed with mirac­u­lous, and intru­sive, and some­times over­pow­er­ing tech­nol­o­gy. And remem­ber, tech­nol­o­gy will nev­er replace a beat­ing heart. Nev­er fear a robot. Fear of robots is how the rich intend to keep us down. But Uber dri­vers remind­ed us recent­ly that we have pow­er together.

Part of our task is to build a labor move­ment that sees itself tru­ly as a labor move­ment — not just a col­lec­tion of sep­a­rate unions but a move­ment that is big enough, broad enough, to lift up every­one who works in Amer­i­ca. Because just as no indi­vid­ual work­er can stand alone, no indi­vid­ual union, no mat­ter how big, can stand alone either, or can sur­vive long on its own.

We can­not be a move­ment of hand­fuls of work­ers here and there, or a move­ment that lives off of our polit­i­cal skills. We also can­not suc­cumb to the temp­ta­tion of com­pa­ny union­ism, of turn­ing into employ­ers’ out­sourced HR solution.

We must build a pow­er­ful, demo­c­ra­t­ic labor move­ment — built on sol­i­dar­i­ty and pow­er in the work­place, a labor move­ment that is ready to work togeth­er with busi­ness to build our coun­try, but whose core pur­pose is to make sure that — whether busi­ness choos­es to work with us or not, work­ing peo­ple will get our fair share of the wealth we create.

It Has to Start in the Workplace

And part of that task is to build a labor move­ment that tru­ly stands for some­thing — a move­ment with a mis­sion, a move­ment that embod­ies the best our coun­try has been and can be, a move­ment that chal­lenges all of us who are part of it to be our bet­ter selves.

And we can be that move­ment when we choose to be. In 2017, when the White House aban­doned Puer­to Rico after Hur­ri­cane Maria, we, the labor move­ment, did much more than send mon­ey. We filled ships with sup­plies, and we filled a giant plane with skilled union work­ers, who spent two weeks sav­ing lives and rebuild­ing com­mu­ni­ties in Puer­to Rico. We turned the pow­er back on in senior cen­ters, reopened schools, our union nurs­es and doc­tors went to remote vil­lages where the wound­ed and sick remained untreat­ed and were seen for the first time.

The flight atten­dants were proud to be part of the AFL-CIO’s Puer­to Rico Relief Mis­sion, and to have helped recruit Unit­ed Air­lines to pro­vide us the plane that got our relief work­ers to San Juan.

We need as a move­ment to act in that spir­it every day. To bring work­ing peo­ple togeth­er — all work­ing peo­ple. To demand that all who work in Amer­i­ca have their efforts rec­og­nized, their dig­ni­ty hon­ored, their rights pro­tect­ed, their future fought for as our future.

The good news is that every time we fight we get stronger — and there’s no short­age of fights for labor. But it has to start in the work­place. It has to start in real people’s every­day lives. If we want to build pow­er for our move­ment and for work­ing peo­ple, start in the work­place, and the pol­i­tics will follow.

When we start with what peo­ple feel and see in their lives, we can build sol­i­dar­i­ty. It’s amaz­ing what sol­i­dar­i­ty on a work­site can do. Peo­ple who may be on oppo­site ends of a polit­i­cal debate can find com­mon ground when you ground that fight in their workplace.

Just a few months ago, my union went to bat for one of our mem­bers. Selene was a DACA recip­i­ent and grad­u­ate of Texas A&M who had arrived in the Unit­ed States at the age of three and just begun her dream job as a flight atten­dant. She was assigned a trip to Mon­terey, Mex­i­co. When she told her super­vi­sor she couldn’t fly inter­na­tion­al­ly because of her DACA sta­tus, she was told it was OK to take the trip. On pro­ba­tion and afraid to lose her job, she went.

But when she came back, CBP stopped her and turned her over to ICE. She was put in a pri­vate deten­tion facil­i­ty in prison-like con­di­tions for six weeks.

When we learned about her case, our union mobi­lized and we got her released with­in eigh­teen hours. The com­ment I saw that sticks with me the most dur­ing that time was from a con­ser­v­a­tive mem­ber, a Trump vot­er who said that she want­ed strong immi­gra­tion laws,” but this was too far.

Because the fight start­ed in the work­place, because our mem­bers under­stand that in the union an injury to one is an injury to all, that flight atten­dant was able to see past her polit­i­cal beliefs to what was right and what was wrong. Now she’s some­one we can mobi­lize to fight for a fix to the DREAM Act — and from there, who knows.

Using Pow­er Builds Power

And always remem­ber: if you start in the work­place, the can­di­dates will fol­low too. They answer to us.

Our unions have long been at the fore­front of fights for social jus­tice, because we rec­og­nized that basic premise that if we’re not all equal­ly pro­tect­ed, none of us is pro­tect­ed. For years, we out­sourced our pow­er while the boss­es were out­sourc­ing our jobs. We spent too much time try­ing to cut deals with the boss or build favor with politi­cians, and too lit­tle time mobi­liz­ing mem­bers to fight for what we deserve.

Peo­ple think pow­er is a lim­it­ed resource, but using pow­er builds pow­er. Once work­ers get a taste of our pow­er, we will not set­tle for a bad deal. And we won’t stand by while some­one else gets screwed, either.

So the gov­ern­ment shut­down was a human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis, with eight hun­dred thou­sand fed­er­al sec­tor sis­ters and broth­ers who were either locked out of work or forced to come to work with­out pay due to the gov­ern­ment shut­down. And anoth­er mil­lion peo­ple doing con­tract work, locked out with no warning.

In the pri­vate sec­tor, there would have been six­ty days notice for the lay­off. No work­er would go to work with­out pay. Even in bank­rupt­cy the first day orders include approval to pay the peo­ple who are working.

Only because of our unions, we heard the sto­ries of real peo­ple who are faced real con­se­quences of being dragged into the longest shut­down in his­to­ry. No mon­ey to pay for rent, for child­care, or a tank of gas to get to work. The fed­er­al work­er stretch­ing insulin through the night and won­der­ing if she will wake up in the morn­ing. The trans­porta­tion secu­ri­ty offi­cer in her third trimester with no cer­tain­ty for her unborn child. The cor­rec­tions offi­cer who tried to take his own life because he saw no oth­er way out. The air traf­fic con­troller who whis­pered to his union leader, I just don’t know how long I can hang on.” The TSA Offi­cer in Orlan­do who took his life by jump­ing eight floors to his death in the mid­dle of the secu­ri­ty checkpoint.

When two mil­lion work­ers were locked out or being forced to work with­out pay dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down, and the rest of us were going to work when our work­space was becom­ing increas­ing­ly unsafe, I asked, What is the labor move­ment wait­ing for?”

It was time for us to act with urgency and end the shut­down with a gen­er­al strike.

The GOP had no idea what that meant, but they knew it didn’t sound good. They knew it sound­ed like work­ers might get a taste of our pow­er, and they couldn’t have that. We end­ed the shut­down because we near­ly top­pled their entire stran­gle­hold on our country.

Many peo­ple want­ed fed­er­al work­ers with no right to strike to fix this sit­u­a­tion for us. We said, don’t put it on the backs of peo­ple who are already locked out — what are you will­ing to do? Flight atten­dants made clear our rights allowed us to refuse to work in unsafe con­di­tions, and we made clear we were going to exer­cise those rights. We had to define what was at stake and what lever­age we had to fix it.

Sol­i­dar­i­ty Is a Force Stronger Than Gravity

And here we are — with this White House, rec­og­niz­ing that the last thing we can do is take the rights we’ve gained for grant­ed. Moth­er Jones told us, We will fight and win. Fight and lose. But above all, we must fight!” Our rights are nev­er absolute. They exist because gen­er­a­tions of work­ers died to give us these rights.

They were shot down at Home­stead, Penn­syl­va­nia and in the hills of West Vir­ginia. They were hanged for the Hay­mar­ket affair in Chica­go, and beat­en on an over­pass near Detroit — all for tak­ing a stand for the rights of work­ing people.

There were beat­ings at Stonewall and mur­ders in San Fran­cis­co City Hall. These activists thought it was impor­tant enough to stand up against all odds and put every­thing on the line to make it bet­ter for their fam­i­lies — and for our fam­i­lies. Today it’s our turn.

Sis­ters and broth­ers, it’s our turn to shape our labor move­ment. Unions in this coun­try have led mobs against immi­grants, and we have lift­ed up immi­grants. We have writ­ten union con­sti­tu­tions that exclud­ed African Amer­i­cans, and yet Dr. King gave his life on a union pick­et line.

We as a move­ment are not auto­mat­i­cal­ly on the right side. We have to choose to be. And we have to live that choice.

And today the choic­es haven’t got­ten eas­i­er — they have got­ten harder.

Our lives and our well­be­ing are com­plete­ly tied togeth­er with work­ers in Mex­i­co and Cana­da, Chi­na and Ger­many. Yet politi­cians in every coun­try seek to divide us, pit us against each other.

The ener­gy sec­tor employs mil­lions of work­ers. Our com­mu­ni­ties depend on coal, oil, nat­ur­al gas. Yet car­bon emis­sions threat­en our very civilization.

We can fight cli­mate change and cre­ate good jobs with rights and ben­e­fits. That’s why I sup­port a Green New Deal. But we can only fight cli­mate change if we stand togeth­er, if we lis­ten and respect our broth­ers and sis­ters in the ener­gy sec­tor, and we demand the rich and the pow­er­ful pay their fair share in the fight against cli­mate change. And that we begin by hon­or­ing the promis­es we made to the peo­ple who have kept our cities lit and our homes warm — promis­es that they would have a pen­sion and health care they could count on when they retired.

And final­ly, unless you have for­got­ten, we live in a coun­try where Don­ald Trump is pres­i­dent. Where we take refugees from per­se­cu­tion and vio­lence and put them in cages, where we sep­a­rate moth­ers from chil­dren, where our pres­i­dent makes excus­es for Nazis and attacks local union lead­ers, gives tril­lions to cor­po­ra­tions and threat­ens to take health care away from the poor.

And let me tell you, peo­ple like Don­ald Trump have always tried to woo work­ing peo­ple, here in Amer­i­ca and around the world. And after a gen­er­a­tion of falling wages, of lost pen­sions and bad trade deals, a lot of peo­ple are open to any­thing. At least at first. But now we call him and his bud­dies what they are — frauds, con men, peo­ple who with one hand shake their fists at imag­ined ene­mies and with the oth­er hand pick your pocket.

Sis­ters and broth­ers, I learned the hard way, at the bar­gain­ing table with some of the world’s most pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions stacked even with the pow­er of the bank­rupt­cy court — that the sol­i­dar­i­ty and courage of work­ing peo­ple is the great­est force for good in human history.

As some­one said in this city long ago, In our hands is placed a pow­er greater than their hoard­ed gold, greater than the might of armies mag­ni­fied a thou­sand fold.”

Sol­i­dar­i­ty is a force stronger than grav­i­ty and with our col­lec­tive pow­er comes respect.

This is true today. In this city, in this coun­try, in this world. But only if we make it so.

In These Times is proud to fea­ture con­tent from Jacobin, a print quar­ter­ly that offers social­ist per­spec­tives on pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics. Sup­port Jacobin and buy a sub­scrip­tion for just $29.95.

Sara Nel­son is the pres­i­dent of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants – Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of America.
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